BJU and the Politics of Apology

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there’s an interesting discussion brewing on Facebook among the more-disgruntled BJU alumni about whether the University should offer a formal apology for its interracial dating policy that held sway until 2000.

For those of you who don’t know the issue, in brief:
[to defend myself from the outset, let me state up front that EVERYTHING that follows comes either from my first-hand knowledge or from academic research into primary source documents & news reports that I personally conducted as the university’s reference librarian)

Most Southern colleges banned interracial dating, marriage, or other “mixing” until the early 70s. (For example, Clemson admitted its first black student in the late 60s.)   While BJU accepted blacks as students throughout its history (the few who wanted to enroll, anyway), it firmly held to a “no interracial dating” policy until only 8 years ago when a firestorm of bad publicity during Bush’s presidential campaign drew attention to the University’s rule.

The school’s administration defended the policy in various ways over the years, mostly falling back on a weak biblical argument from Genesis 11, that since God had separated the races at the Tower of Babel, we shouldn’t be all too keen on putting them back together. *coughs*  Like I said, I heard that with my own ears at a faculty meeting in 2000 … and many times earlier as a student.

In the late 70s, BJU’s interacial dating ban came under fire by the IRS who launched a lawsuit against the University, trying to force the school to change its policy in order to comply with government laws.  The IRS threatened to pull BJU’s tax exemption status.  BJU – specifically Dr Bob Jr – refused to budge.  The case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1984, unfortunately grouped with another case about a Christian school in North Carolina that flat-out refused to accept black students at all.

Despite being asked by President Reagan to drop the case, the Department of Justice brought the case to a close with a ruling against BJU.

Rather than change its interracial dating policy, BJU chose to refuse all federal financial aid of any kind. That put it outside the government’s jurisdiction (since it wasn’t doing anything technically “illegal”).  From 1984 till just a few years ago, every one of us BJU students paid for our education out-of-pocket, pretty much.  Nearly every scholarship was now off-limits, as well as all federal financial aid.

Student resentment against the policy grew. Most of us thought the rule was just stupid.  If a biracial kid came to the University, he/she had to undergo an embarrassing appointment with the Dean of Men or Women … who would scrutinize the student to determine “how white” the kid was.  Really “white” kids could choose whether they wanted to date white kids or [insert other race, namely black or Asian].  If you were too dark to be mistaken for a Caucasian, you were pretty much screwed when it came to finding dates for campus events.

If the administration noticed a mixed-race couple suspiciously hanging out together a little too often, they would call them into the dean’s office for a chat.  Lest you think I’m lying, this happened to Jack Knipe (and if you know Jack, you know he pretty much lives for talking to internationals … so he found the whole thing pretty funny).

Despite the inane rule, I found BJU to be a school free of race conflict.  The administration enforced its rule, but the rest of us just shrugged and went on with life. Granted, Fundamentalism doesn’t exactly teem with minorities.  Only the Presbyterians are more “white” than BJU. 

But we BJU grads get really pissed off at being called “racist” when actually our college experience was much the opposite … from one perspective.
On the other hand, the school (until very recently) had only one black faculty member (in the radio/TV department).  To be fair, the new Dean of Education (I understand) is both black and female — pretty shocking for BJU, which doesn’t have much of a track record for women’s rights either. 

Anyway, when George W Bush gave a campaign address at BJU in February 2000 (I was there!), all hell broke loose.  He was criticized for weeks because he spoke at a school that “discriminated against blacks,” “hated Catholics,” and “maintained an archaic & outdated interracial dating ban.”

After initially digging in his heels to the point that we faculty/staff were groaning inwardly at the stupidity of trying to defend such a policy to the students, Dr Bob III had a change of heart in early March 2008.  I distinctly remember the moment when, as a total surprise to *everyone* except the university board of trustees, Dr Bob announced to the world on Larry King Live that he was dropping the interracial dating ban.
We were stunned. I was at an opera rehearsal (picture night … it dragged on for hours … in full costume & makeup … as ancient Egyptians … argh!) and we listened to the show during a break.  The entire stage (a cast of 200 plus crew) burst into spontaneous applause.

To get back to my original point:
A group of BJU grads have begun an official petition to ask the University to make a formal, public apology.

See, that’s the problem.  The University dropped the policy — very good.
But it never admitted that it was wrong to maintain such a position which now seems patently unbiblical.
Many argue that racial healing will never come until the wrong is admitted and forgiveness requested.

It’s like that kid who goes over and rips his little brother’s toy out of his hands. When confronted by mom, the offender gives the toy back and walks away. No apology, no remorse, no repentance.

BJU alumni used to all sign a card that said if the University ever strayed from its biblical position, we were to come back in full force to confront the school … and shut it down if necessary. (I’m not making that up either! haha… I signed one of these cards myself … twice.)  Some alumni believe that we should invoke that promise now.   Many alumni are tired of being labeled “racist” before opening their mouths at job interviews or dinner parties.

Instead of leading the nation toward a more biblical view of race, social justice, and community, the Church (especially in the South) chose to hinder that work in the 1950s – 1970s. BJU is merely one [really big, really influential] example.

Are we Christians responsible to apologize for our past failures in the Civil Rights movement?

I have stirred the pot.
Go to it. …  

[Originally published on my Xanga, where you can find the evidence of a lively discussion in the comments]

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